Music For The Masses: Budget Earphone Shootout [Review, Shootout]

Music For The Masses: Budget Earphone Shootout [Review, Shootout]

There are those faithful who will never surrender their little white Apple earbuds. To them we say: Wear proudly. But for the rest, for those who don’t want to deal with sub-par sound, earbuds flopping around and having to hunt for foam covers, come with us — and we’ll show you a world of possibilities.

Of the five sets in our shootout, four are canalphones that fit in the ear canal — which right off the bat means they’ll do a significantly better job of staying in your ears than ordinary earbuds (like Apple’s); they’ll also seal out some of the ambient noise around you. The fifth set, the Urbanears Medis, is technically an earbud but employs a unique method of staying put. All beat the Apple buds for sound.

1. MEElectronics SP51 ($60)

The SP51 is the chameleon of the group — its sound signature is customizable via three sets of metal caps that screw into the rear of each earpiece; sounds like schtick, but it really worked. Each set is ported to provide a different sound: The smoke-colored set delivers a bassy tone, the black are extra bassy and the silver are the most neutral of the bunch.

Fit was good, and sound quality tied with the UE350s for best-in-show. But those little caps are easy to lose (we lost two during testing) and costly to replace at $25 per complete set. That, a slightly higher price and no mic or controls (the SP51P adds both for an extra $10) knock the SP51s down a notch.

Rating: ★★★½☆

2. Skullcandy Fix In-Ear ($70)

These obviously weren’t designed for the faint of heart. The in-your-face blood-red housings, omnipresent skull emblem and faux carbon-fiber case scream to be worn by adrenaline junkies (or the fashion-bereft, depending on your point of view).

Skullcandy’s claim that the Fix was designed to stay put through crazy skateboard stunts was accurate; considering how comfortable they were, the set was surprisingly difficult to dislodge. Sound matched everything else about the Fix: It oozed bass and attitude, but was harsh with more delicate music. The swashbuckling set likely to pop for these should find the balance appealing. And yeah, they’re the most expensive of the bunch, but they’re also one of only two here with mic, playback/phone *and* volume controls.

Rating: ★★★½☆

3. Incase Capsule ($50)

Like the Fix, the Capsule comes with a full control suite: microphone, call/playback and volume. Unlike the Fix, the Caspule is cute, and won’t make others think you regularly chug a case of Mountain Dew for breakfast. It’s also $20 less, and surprisingly, the bassiest of the bunch. Unfortunately, that bass comes at the expense of clarity — this set was slightly more muddy than even the Fix. Still, fantastic controls, comfortable eartips, tangle-free cables and a killer price makes this set a great all-rounder — especially for bass-lovers.

Rating: ★★★★☆

4. Ultimate Ears 350 ($50)

This is the stop for audiophiles on a budget. The UE350s tied with the SP51s for best sound — in this case, clear and vibrant, with a bias toward bass. No, you’re not going to get the amazing clarity or balance of, say, the armature-powered, $120 UE 600vi — but the 350’s sound is very difficult to beat at this price. The tradeoff: a lack microphone or controls (the 350vi ads them for $10 more).

Rating: ★★★★☆

5. Urbanears Medis ($50)

The Medis uses a unique system of interchangeable rubber bumpers that, with the right fit, wedge the earpieces in the ear. The speakers sit prety much where buds would in the ear; but the wedged fit is extremely effective at keeping them from slipping out — They’re not going anywhere.

I’ve read reviews around the web that claim mediocre sound; odd, because the set’s meaty drivers deliver the goods, both in bass and clarity (though they’re sensitive to placement, which could account for the discrepancy). They don’t perform as well as canalphones; on the plus side, they won’t isolate the user from the environment, or unnerve those who don’t like shoving foreign objects into their ear canals.

A microphone, call/playback controls (no volume controls) and a tangle-free cord make the Medis even more user-friendly. Finally, the Medis comes in more vibrant colors than an acid trip — but no case to protect that retina-burning exterior.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Music For The Masses: Budget Earphone Shootout [Review, Shootout]

The Urbanears Medis and its complement of rubber bumpers.

Music For The Masses: Budget Earphone Shootout [Review, Shootout]

Clockwise from top left: Control surfaces for the Fix, Medis and Capsule.

Music For The Masses: Budget Earphone Shootout [Review, Shootout]

Clockwise from top left: Cases for the SP51, Fix, 350 and Caspule.

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  • Derek Martin

    For the price, you can’t beat the Hi-Fi Premium Noise Isolating Earphones from monoprice.com. Are you ready for this? $5.75 USD.

  • FenTiger

    I’ve had a pair of Medis. Very comfy once you break them in, the sound’s good and cuts a fair bit of ambient noise if you’re out in the street, but not enough to get you run over. BUT. The plug, or more correctly, the where the pug and the cable join, is poorly designed and caused the cable on the three pairs I had to fail in the same place (replaced under warranty twice, I didn’t bother with a 4th pair ). There’s no support for the cable going into the plug and the fairly thin cable flexes at that point in your pocket when you walk. None of the pairs I had lasted more than 9 months. And at £50 a pop that’s just not good enough. My Apple earbuds have a better, longer lasting cable on them, although they’re rubbish in every other aspect.

    Can I suggest CoM does a review round up of headphones with replaceable leads?

  • Blake Beavers

    Best headphones ever: Shure SE215

  • SevanGrim

    the term budget needs to be redefined here. 50-100 bucks is midrange. under fifty would have been budget, and phones cracking the 100 barrier are various stages of high end.
     i mean, i guess thats budget for you people who can afford a dozen idevices every couple years, but for the rest of us thats a bit pricey for headphones.

  • nthnm

    This isn’t really budget at all since you can get sets for as little as $20.

  • elimilchman

    Well, it’s not really a matter of what one can afford. Everyone’s priorities are different — even in my poorest days (which were pretty dire), I’d pop for a $100 pair of ‘phones, because music is important to me. Rather, these ‘phones are classified as budget based on the price range of ‘phones on the shelf. For instance, Ultimate Ears sells IEMs in a price range from $20 to $1350. Considering this, $50 qualifies as budget. Also, models over $100 can’t simply be lumped into “various stages of high-end”; there’s an immense differences between $120 earphones and $1350 earphones — as one would expect. 

    Good point to raise though, and thanks for the comment.

  • elimilchman

    Fen, thanks for the comment. Yes — though we didn’t experience it, failed cables seems to be a common complaint with the Medis. 

    It’s rare to find IEMs with replaceable cables, most being concentrated in the super high-end of the spectrum, making it difficult to do a round up because of the amount of space needed to review each model. Conversely, a wide variety of over-the-ear headphones come with replaceable cables, again making a roundup impractical because of how different they’d be in all other respects. However, we agree that it’s an important feature, we make certain to mention it in the review and it’s definitely something we consider when awarding a rating.

  • mlahero

    Budget earphones for the masses?? Sennheiser CX300-IIs. End thread.

  • imajoebob

    Gotta agree with Evan.  To me, “budget” means very affordable, but not a POS, and the $20-$50 range fits that.  It’s a signal you’re not going to get cheap crap, and you’re not going to get an “audiophile experience,” but you’ll get good performance for the environment you’ll use them: exercising, commuting, walking, biking, etc.  These earphones aren’t going to sound 40 dollars better on the train or bus.

  • elimilchman

    You can buy sets for much less than that even. But generally they, along with $20 earphones, offer no gains over the Apple buds.

  • elimilchman

    Three of five here were $50, which fits your description of budget. Also, again, affordability is subjective — which is why we used price range of what’s available as our guide.

  • penguinstorm

    How much do you pay your writers that $70 is considered a “budget” pair of earphones?

  • elimilchman

    Not nearly enough.

  • Joaquin Jang

    I listen to mostly podcasts and beat up my headphones by carrying my iPod in my pocket so I usually get $15-20 Skullcandy’s. I refuse to get any quality headphones that don’t have a cord that detaches from the actual earphone because that cord gets damaged so often.

About the author

Eli MilchmanWhen he was eight, Eli Milchman came home from frolicking in the Veld one day and was given an Atari 400. Since then, his fascination with technology has made him an intrepid early adopter of whatever charming new contraption crosses his path — which explains why he's Cult of Mac's test editor-at-large. He calls San Francisco home, where he works as a journalist and photographer. Eli has contributed to the pages of Wired.com and BIKE Magazine, among others. Hang with him on Twitter.

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